Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

Whenever I need to explain the difference between socialism and capitalism, I start by noting that socialism technically is different from Obama-style big-government redistributionism and cronyism.

Socialism involves something more pervasive, involving government ownership of the means of production (which, if you read this postscript, is why Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom is far more radical than previous Labour Party leaders).

It also means eviscerating the competitive price system as a means of determining value and allocating resources, relying instead on politicians and bureaucrats to arbitrarily wield that power (some American politicians favor this latter approach in certain circumstances).

Needless to say, socialism has an unmatched track record of failure. It was such a disaster than only a few supposedly high-ranked academics (see this postscript) thought it worked.

But what about high-ranked communists who grew up under socialism. Did they think it worked?

The Houston Chronicle dug into its archives to produce a story about an incident that may have played a big role in history. It’s about a senior communist functionary who was exposed to a slice of capitalism.

Yeltsin visited mission control and a mock-up of a space station. According to Houston Chronicle reporter Stefanie Asin, it wasn’t all the screens, dials, and wonder at NASA that blew up his skirt, it was the unscheduled trip inside a nearby Randall’s location. Yeltsin, then 58, “roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,” wrote Asin. He told his fellow Russians in his entourage that if their people, who often must wait in line for most goods, saw the conditions of U.S. supermarkets, “there would be a revolution.” …In the Chronicle photos, you can see him marveling at the produce section, the fresh fish market, and the checkout counter. He looked especially excited about frozen pudding pops. “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,” he said.

This random trip to a typical supermarket may have changed history.

About a year after the Russian leader left office, a Yeltsin biographer later wrote that on the plane ride to Yeltsin’s next destination, Miami, he was despondent. He couldn’t stop thinking about the plentiful food at the grocery store and what his countrymen had to subsist on in Russia. In Yeltsin’s own autobiography, he wrote about the experience at Randall’s, which shattered his view of communism, according to pundits. Two years later, he left the Communist Party and began making reforms to turn the economic tide in Russia. …“When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people,” Yeltsin wrote. “That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it.”

Since the Soviet Union was mired in poverty at the time, Yeltsin presumably was speculating about the potential wealth of his country.

And the good news is that the rigid communism of the Soviet Union is gone. Heck, the Soviet Union doesn’t even exist. Reagan was right when he predicted  the triumph of freedom, with Marxism being relegated to the “ash heap of history.”

But the bad news is that Russia (the most prominent of the 15 nations to emerge after the crackup of the Soviet Union) is a laggard on economic reform. There was a shift away from close-to-pure communism in the 1990s, to be sure, but the country still has a long way to go before it can be considered capitalist.

Here’s a back-of-the-envelope “statism spectrum” that I created. It’s designed to show that there are no pure libertarian paradises, not even Hong Kong. And there are no pure statist dystopias, not even North Korea (though that despotic regime is as close to pure evil as exists in the world).

Russia, I’m guessing, would be somewhere between China and Mexico.

And this gives me a chance to close with an important point.

Perfect economic policy almost surely is an impossible goal. But that’s fine. We can still enjoy good growth so long as we strive to at least move in the right direction. As I explained back in 2012, the private sector is capable of producing impressive results so long as it has sufficient breathing room to operate.

P.S. If you want a simpler and more amusing explanation of different economic systems, here’s the famous “two cows” approach.

P.P.S. The United States isn’t a socialist nation, but we’re not fully immune to that destructive virus. After all, we have a government-run rail company in America, a government-run postal service, a government-run retirement system, and a government-run air traffic control system, all things that would function far more efficiently in the private sector.

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Back in March, I asked why Republican presidential candidates were willing to openly violate federal anti-bribery law by supporting agriculture subsidies in exchange for campaign loot.

My question was merely rhetorical, of course, since politician supposedly aren’t violating the law because the money goes to their campaigns rather than their personal bank accounts.

But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a sleazy quid pro quo.

If you think I’m exaggerating, you’ll change your mind after reading these excerpts from a column by the superb muckraking journalist Tim Carney.

The target of his piece in the Washington Examiner is Congressman Stephen Fincher of Tennessee.

Congressman Stephen Fincher…, once an opponent of the Export-Import Bank —a federal agency that subsidizes foreign buyers of U.S.-made goods — now is trying to undermine his party’s leadership by teaming up with Nancy Pelosi and her party in order to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank as President Obama and his big donors in the business lobby have demanded. …Fincher has pulled up his Tennessee roots and is now firmly planted in D.C. Instead of serving Western Tennessee, Fincher..now represents Wall Street and K Street.

Is this hyperbole?

Well, check out what Tim found out about his fundraising.

Fincher has raised a quarter-million for his re-election, according to his most recent campaign finance filing. Exactly two of his approximately 150 donations have come from Tennessee residents. Tennessee residents have given Fincher a combined $750, which rounds to 0 percent of his money raised.

And why are out-of-state donors lining up to give Fincher money?

Draw your own conclusions.

Fincher introduced his bill to reauthorize Ex-Im on Jan. 28. Two days later his campaign deposited a $2,000 check from General Electric, Ex-Im’s second-largest beneficiary and most ruthless defender. …Boeing (which benefits from 40 percent of Ex-Im subsidies) and United Technologies chipped in about a week and a half later. All of Ex-Im’s top beneficiaries, exporters and lenders (notably Ex-Im’s leading lender JPMorgan), have given to Fincher’s re-election.

The corrupt Ex-Im Bank is just one example of the for-sale sign in Fincher’s office.

Odious agriculture subsidies also can be purchased, even though none of the loot winds up in the pockets of Tennesseans.

Fincher has voted to protect the federal sugar program, whereby our government keeps out foreign sugar and issues taxpayer-backed loans to guarantee high prices for U.S. sugar growers. This hurts families, U.S.-based foodmakers and the economy, while benefitting a handful of privileged sugar companies. Tennessee produces no sugarcane or sugar beets… But Fincher’s donors do. Sugar Cane Growers of Florida PAC, American Crystal Sugar PAC, American Sugar Cane League PAC, Florida Sugar Cane League PAC, Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-Op PAC and the U.S. Beet Sugar PAC are all Fincher donors and all beneficiaries of the corporate welfare Fincher supports.

By the way, I should hasten to add that this doesn’t mean that Fincher is especially corrupt by congressional standards.

Or that he’s completely bad. I’ve made the point before that most politicians are a combination of good and bad characteristics.

It’s like they have a devil on one shoulder whispering bad advice and an angel on the other shoulder trying to get them to do the right thing.

And when the devil has a lot of PAC checks and the angel is a wonky think tank economist like yours truly, the bad guys oftentimes triumph.

But not always. Fincher, for instance, has voted for budgets based on genuine entitlement reform. And in the grand scheme of things, reining in those programs is much more important to the nation’s long-run fiscal health than curtailing sleazy corporate welfare.

That’s still no excuse, though, for Fincher’s behavior. He’s using the coercive power of government to steal from one group of people in order to provide unearned and undeserved goodies for another group.

Democrats do the same thing, of course, and they’re quite promiscuous. They seemingly favor all forms of redistribution, ranging from traditional welfare to corporate welfare.

But you can make a strong argument that Republicans are being even more immoral since they generally redistribute from the poor and middle class to the rich.

P.S. Since I’m not feeling particularly charitable to the political class, let’s close with some biting humor against the crowd in Washington.

Regular readers know I’m not a big fan of Pope Francis, and I’ve shared some criticism based on the insights of Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell.

But I definitely think this clever image is worth sharing.

Reminds me of this Star Wars-themed joke about Washington.

P.P.S. If you like mocking the political class, I have lots of other material for you to enjoy. You can read about how the men and women in DC spend their time screwing us and wasting our money. We also have some examples of what people in Montana, Louisiana, Nevada, and Wyoming think about big-spending politicians.

This little girl has a succinct message for our political masters, here are a couple of good images capturing the relationship between politicians and taxpayers, and here is a somewhat off-color Little Johnny joke. Speaking of risqué humor, here’s a portrayal of a politician and lobbyist interacting.

Returning to G-rated material, you can read about the blind rabbit who finds a politician. And everyone enjoys political satire, as can be found in these excerpts from the always popular Dave Barry.

Let’s not forgot to include this joke by doctors about the crowd in Washington. And last but not least, here’s the motivational motto of the average politician.

P.P.P.S. One serious point. If we want to clean up corruption in Washington, more campaign finance laws won’t work. The only way to reduce corruption is to shrink the size of government.

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What’s worse, Democrats who deliberately seek to make government bigger because of their ideological belief in statism, or Republicans who sort of realize that big government is bad yet make government bigger because of incompetence?

I’m not sure, though this is a perfect example of why I often joke that Washington is divided between the Evil Party and the Stupid Party.

And the fight over spending caps is a perfect example.

President Obama and the Democrats despise this small bit of fiscal discipline, which was created as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). They’re aggressively seeking to eviscerate the law, particularly the sequester enforcement mechanism. And since they believe in bigger government, their actions make sense.

Republicans, by contrast, claim to believe in smaller government and fiscal responsibility. So they should be in the driver’s seat on this fight. After all, the BCA is the law of the land and the spending caps – assuming they are not changed – will automatically limit overspending in Washington. In other words, the BCA fight is like the fight over reauthorizing the corrupt Export-Import Bank. Republicans can win simply by doing nothing.

Seems like a slam dunk win for taxpayers, right?

Not exactly. With apologies for mixing my sports metaphors, the Republicans are poised to fumble the ball at the one-yard line.

Which would be a very depressing development. In this interview, I explain that preserving the spending caps should be the most important goal for advocates of limited government.

And you’ll see that I also explained that fighting for good policy today is necessary if we want to avoid huge fiscal problems in the future.

But that doesn’t seem to matter very much for a lot of Republicans.

Let’s look at what other fiscal policy experts are saying about this issue.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center explains that the key to good fiscal policy (including tax cuts) is to have effective and enforceable long-run spending restraint.

If lawmakers want big tax cuts, there will need to be commensurately greater levels of spending restraint. The difficulty, of course, is to persuade politicians to implement such spending constraints and actually stick to them in the long run.


That’s basically the same message I shared yesterday.

President Obama, however, has threatened to veto the budget and shut down the government if Congress doesn’t agree to bust the current spending caps.

And plenty of Republicans, either because they also want to buy votes with other people’s money or because they’re scared of a shutdown fight, are willing to throw in the towel.

The battle isn’t lost, at least not yet, but it’s very discouraging that this fight even exists. Controlling discretionary spending should be the easy part.

After all, if politicians balk at the modest requirements of the BCA, what hope is there that they’ll properly address entitlements? As Veronique notes, those are the programs that are driving America’s long-run fiscal crisis.

…the only realistic way to limit spending growth to 2 or 3 percent per year is to reform the fastest-growing programs in our budget, or the so-called entitlements.

What makes this issue especially frustrating is that we know sustained spending restraint is possible.

Nations such have Switzerland have shown how spending caps produce very positive results.

But that requires some commitment for good policy by at least some people in Washington.

And that may be lacking. In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Steve Moore takes a closer look at how GOPers are poised to throw away their biggest fiscal victory of the Obama years.

Let’s start with an excerpt illustrating how the BCA and sequestration have worked.

…the Budget Control Act helped slam the brakes on Mr. Obama’s first-term spending spree. …In 2009 the federal government accounted for nearly a quarter of the American economy, 24.4%. That fell by 2014 to 20.3% of GDP.

He’s right. I’ve shared similar numbers showing how Obama’s spending binge was halted.

And that’s led to the biggest five-year reduction in the burden of government spending since the end of World War II.

But fiscal sobriety needs to be sustained. Deciding to have “just one drink” at the big spender’s bar is not a good way to stay on the wagon.

And Steve shares some bad news on this issue.

Congress and the White House are quietly negotiating a deal for the new fiscal year that would bust the spending caps that have brought down the deficit. Breaking the caps yet again—this would be the third violation in four years—is lousy policy. …the GOP is reportedly forging a compromise with Mr. Obama that would raise the caps by $70 billion to $100 billion. …What’s worse, the deal would likely raise the spending caps permanently, meaning…nearly $1 trillion…over the next decade.

By the way, there’s a reason why this sounds like déjà vu all over again. Republicans already agreed to bust the spending caps at the end of 2013.

That was an unambiguous victory for Obama.

And now it may happen again. Steven discusses the implications of this looming GOP surrender.

The mystery is why Republicans are so ready to throw away their best fiscal weapon… Liberals hate the sequester because it squeezes their favorite programs, from transit grants to Head Start. But it is the law of the land. President Obama can do nothing to circumvent the sequester—unless Republicans in Congress cave in. …Busting the spending caps will only reverse progress toward a balanced budget, fatten liberal social programs, and confirm what many tea-party voters have been shouting for years: that Republicans break their promises once elected.

For all intents and purposes, the battle over BCA spending caps is a huge test of GOP sincerity. Do they really believe in limited government, or is that just empty rhetoric they reserve for campaign speeches.

P.S. Some Republicans argue that they favor smaller government, but that the sequester is “unfair” and the spending caps are too “harsh” because the defense budget is disproportionately affected.

It’s true that the defense budget is being capped while most domestic spending (specifically entitlement programs) is left unconstrained. But that doesn’t mean the nation’s security is threatened.

Defense spending still grows under these laws and our military budget is still far bigger than the combined budgets of all possible adversaries.

For further information, read George Will’s sober analysis and also peruse some writings by Mark Steyn and Steve Chapman.

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Like many Americans, I’m suffering from Obamacare fatigue.

Health Freedom Meter before ObamacareBefore the law was implemented, I repeatedly explained that more spending and more intervention  in the health sector would worsen a system that already was suffering from too much government.

And since the law went into effect, I’ve pointed out – over and over again – the predictably negative effects of Health Freedom Meter after Obamacaregiving the government even more control.

So I’m tempted to wash my hands of the issue.

But that would be wrong, particularly since advocates of statism disingenuously might claim that silence somehow means acceptance or approval.

Moreover, we need to continuously remind ourselves that big government doesn’t work just in case there’s a chance to enact good reforms after Obama leaves office.

With that in mind, let’s look at recent developments that underscore the case against government-run healthcare.

How about the fact that Obamacare is extremely vulnerable to fraud?

…the GAO report showed that federal auditors 11 out of 12 times were able to gain subsidized coverage with fictitious applications, three of the successful applications never provided citizenship or immigration documentation. The investigators in each case were able to obtain $2,500 or around $30,000 annually in advance premium tax credits.

And what about the fact that the Obamacare co-ops have been a big flop?

Nonprofit co-ops, the health care law’s public-spirited alternative to mega-insurers, are awash in red ink and many have fallen short of sign-up goals, a government audit has found. Under President Barack Obama’s overhaul, taxpayers provided $2.4 billion in loans to get the co-ops going, but only one out of 23 — the one in Maine — made money last year, said the report out Thursday. Another one…was shut down by regulators over financial concerns. The audit by the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office also found that 13 of the 23 lagged far behind their 2014 enrollment projections.

Or what about the fact that deductibles have increased under Obamacare?

A survey released earlier this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that..deductibles have risen almost three times as fast since 2010 for employer-sponsored plans.

And should we care that Obamacare has meant rising health care costs?

…the actuaries estimated that health spending that year jumped by 5.5 percent, a bigger rise than the country had experienced in five years. …The actuaries cited three main reasons they think health spending is set to tick up. One is the aging of the population… Another is the improving economy… But the third, and a big one, was Obamacare’s coverage expansion.

All of the aforementioned things are contrary to what Obamacare supporters promised.

Though since I focus on policy rather than politics, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that higher deductibles in some ways are a good thing. Which is why I’ve defended Obamacare’s Cadillac tax.

But now let’s look at two additional Obamacare developments. And both represent very bad news.

First, new scholarly research shows that Obamacare will be bad news for all income levels, and even will be of questionable value to those getting big subsidies (h/t: Marginal Revolution).

…the average financial burden will increase for all income levels once insured. Subsidy-eligible persons with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty threshold likely experience welfare improvements that offset the higher financial burden, depending on assumptions about risk aversion and the value of additional consumption of medical care. However, even under the most optimistic assumptions, close to half of the formerly uninsured (especially those with higher incomes) experience both higher financial burden and lower estimated welfare.

In other words, people generally were making sensible choices when they had some degree of freedom.

But now that they’re being coerced into Obamacare, many of them are worse off. Even in many cases if they’re the ones getting subsidized!

Second, we now know that President Obama’s promise to lower health insurance premiums by $2,500 was laughably misleading.

But it’s not simply that the President exaggerated. As Investor’s Business Daily explains, the numbers actually have gone in the other direction

Since 2008, average family premiums have climbed a total of $4,865. The White House cheered the news, saying it was a sign of continued slow growth in premium costs. …Slightly less higher premiums aren’t what President Obama promised Americans when he ran for office touting his medical overhaul. He specifically said his plan would cut premiums. “We will start,” Obama said back in 2008, “by reducing premiums by as much as $2,500 per family.”

And keep in mind that Obama’s claim of big savings was not a one-time, off-the-cuff comment.

As you can see in this video, it was a pervasive part of his campaign for further government control of the health care system.

But the real story isn’t prevarication by a politician. That comes with the territory.

The real issue is that our healthcare system is more screwed up because government now is playing a bigger role.

And keep in mind that fixing the problem means a lot more than simply repealing Obamacare. We also need to deal with spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and address tax preferences and regulations that encourage over-insurance.

After all, never forget that our real healthcare crisis is a giant government-caused third-party payer problem.

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Two days ago, I contrasted the views of Pope Francis and Walter Williams about capitalism and morality.

I explained that Walter had the upper hand because free markets are a positive-sum game based on voluntary exchange while redistribution (at best) is a zero-sum game based on coercion.

That’s the theoretical argument. Now let’s look at the empirical data, specifically focusing on which approach is best for the less fortunate.

Thomas Sowell, the great economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is not impressed by the Pope’s analysis. Here some of what Prof. Sowell wrote for Investor’s Business Daily.

Pope Francis has created political controversy…by blaming capitalism for many of the problems of the poor. …putting aside religious or philosophical questions, we have more than two centuries of historical evidence… Any serious look at the history of human beings over the millennia shows that the species began in poverty. It is not poverty, but prosperity, that needs explaining. …which has a better track record of helping the less fortunate — fighting for a bigger slice of the economic pie, or producing a bigger pie? …the official poverty level in the U.S. is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the U.S. has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left. Pope Francis’ own native Argentina was once among the leading economies of the world, before it was ruined by the kind of ideological notions he is now promoting around the world.

I briefly discussed the failure of the Peronist Argentinian model last month, but let’s take a closer look at Professor Sowell’s assertions about the U.S. and Argentina.

My colleague at the Cato Institute, Marian Tupy, has put together a great fact-filled website called Human Progress, and it allows users to access all sorts of databases to produce their own charts and tables.

And here’s what the data shows about per-capita economic output in Argentina and the United States.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the supposedly more compassionate system in Argentina.

As you can see from this table, Argentina actually was slightly richer than the U.S. back in 1896. But that nation’s shift to statism, particularly after World War II, hindered Argentina’s growth rates.

And seemingly modest differences in growth, compounded over decades, have a huge impact on living standards for ordinary people (i.e., inflation-adjusted GDP per person climbing nearly $27,000 in the U.S. vs an increase of less than $6,700 in Argentina).

By the way, this is not an endorsement of America’s economic policy. We have far too much statism in the United States.

But compared to Argentina, which generally has ranked in the bottom quartile for economic freedom, the United States has a more market-friendly track record.

To help make the bigger point about the importance of economic liberty, let’s now compare the United States with a jurisdiction that consistently has been ranked as the world’s freest economy.

Look at changes in economic output in America and Hong Kong from 1950 to the present. As you can see, Hong Kong started the period as a very poor jurisdiction, with per-capita output only about one-fourth of American levels.

But thanks to better policy, which led to faster growth compounding over several decades, Hong Kong has now caught up to the United States.

What’s most remarkable, if you look at the table, is that per-capita output over the past 65 years has soared by more than 1,275 percent in Hong Kong.

Needless to say, if the U.S. is out-performing Argentina and Hong Kong is out-performing the U.S., then a comparison of Hong Kong and Argentina would yield ever starker results.

I actually did something like that back in 2011 and the results further underscore that there’s a very powerful relationship between economic policy and economic performance.

Which brings us back to the fundamental issue of what system is best for the less fortunate in society?

I suppose that’s a judgement call, but poor people obviously have higher incomes and more opportunity when there’s strong economic growth.

But as Margaret Thatcher famously explained, some people are so consumed by disdain for success that they’re willing to accept more suffering for poor people if they can simultaneously lower the incomes of rich people.

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As we get deeper into an election season, many politicians feel compelled to discuss how to deal with poverty.  And some of them may even be serious about trying to improve the system.

This hopefully will lead to big-picture discussions of key issues, such as why the poverty rate stopped falling in the mid-1960s.

If so, it helps to look past the headline numbers and actually understand the scope of the problem.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute explains that the official poverty data from the Census Bureau overstates the number of poor people.

…the official poverty rate is a positive embarrassment today. The poverty rate manifestly cannot do the single thing it was intended for: to count the number of people in our country subsisting below a fixed and absolute “poverty line.” Among its many other shortcomings, this index implicitly assumes that a family’s annual reported income is identical to its spending power… But income and spending patterns no longer track for the lowest income strata in modern America. …the bottom quintile of US households spent 130% more than their reported pretax income. The disparity between spending and income levels for poorer Americans has been gradually widening over time.

Though the shortcomings of the Census Bureau sometimes largely don’t matter because advocates of bigger government arbitrarily choose different numbers that further exaggerate the degree of poverty in the United States.

In a column for National Review, the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector exposes the dishonest tactic (promoted by the Obama Administration and used by the OECD) of measuring income differences instead of actual poverty.

The Left often claims that the U.S has a far higher poverty rate than other developed nations have. These claims are based on a “relative poverty” standard, in which being “poor” is defined as having an income below 50 percent of the national median. Since the median income in the United States is substantially higher than the median income in most European countries, these comparisons establish a higher hurdle for escaping from “poverty” in the U.S. than is found elsewhere.

Based on honest apples-to-apples numbers, the United States is just as capable as other developed nations of minimizing material deprivation.

A more meaningful analysis would compare countries against a uniform standard. …Garfinkel and his co-authors do exactly that. They measure the percentage of people in each country who fall below the poverty-income threshold in the U.S. ($24,008 per year for a family of four in 2014). The authors reasonably broaden the measure of income to include “non-cash” benefits such as food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and equivalent programs in other nations. They also subtract taxes paid by low-income families, which are heavy in Europe. …the differences in poverty according to this uniform standard were very small. For example, the poverty rate in the U.S. was 8.7 percent, while the average among other affluent countries was around 7.6 percent. The rate in Germany was 7.3 percent, and in Sweden, it was 7.5 percent. Using a slightly higher uniform standard set at 125 percent of the U.S. poverty-income thresholds, the authors find that the U.S. actually has a slightly lower poverty rate than other affluent countries.

These numbers probably disappoint leftists who want to believe that European nations are somehow more generous and more effective in dealing with poverty.

But Robert explains that advocates of smaller government and individual responsibility should not be happy because the federal government’s profligacy isn’t helping poor people become self sufficient.

It is, of course, a good thing that left-wing claims of widespread deprivation in the U.S. are inaccurate. But government welfare policy should be about more than shoveling out a trillion dollars per year in “free” benefits. When President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he sought to decrease welfare dependence and increase self-sufficiency: the ability of family to support itself above poverty without the need for government handouts. By that score, the War on Poverty has been a $24 trillion flop. While self-sufficiency improved dramatically in the decades before the War on Poverty started, for the last 45 years, it has been at a standstill.

Robert Doar and Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute make a very similar point about the welfare state failing to promote self sufficiency.

Recently released data show that the official poverty rate was 14.8% in 2014, only slightly below the 15% in poverty in 1970. And this is despite large increases in federal spending on anti-poverty programs.  Spending on these programs has increased almost tenfold in constant dollars since the early 1970s and increased from 1.0% of GDP in 1972 to 3.8% in 2012… Where does this leave us? If helping people achieve self-sufficiency and be free of government assistance is the goal, the safety net has largely failed. But if reducing material hardship is the goal, it performs well.

I would make a very important change to the above passage. Doar and Rachidi write that the poverty rate hasn’t declined “despite large increases” in supposed anti-poverty spending. Based on the evidence, it would be more accurate to say that poverty has stayed high “because of large increases.”

Simply stated, when you subsidize something, you get more of it.

Anyhow, all this matters for three reasons.

  • First, dependency is bad news for poor people, particularly when government subsidizes multi-generational poverty and unwed motherhood.
  • Second, the current welfare state is bad news for taxpayers, who are financing a $1 trillion income-redistribution system that fails in its most important task.
  • Third, the current system is bad news for the economy because millions of people are bribed to be out of the labor force, thus lowering potential output.

Let’s summarize what we know. The official poverty rate exaggerates the actual number of poor people by failing to properly measure income, but that may not matter much since proponents of more redistribution prefer to use dishonest numbers that are even more distorted.

And we also know that the welfare state is capable of redistributing lots of money, but also that it does a terrible job of promoting self sufficiency. Indeed, it’s almost certainly the case that massive levels of redistribution have had a negative effect.

So what’s the solution to this mess?

Folks on the left want even more of the same. But why should we expect that to have any positive effect? Indeed, it’s more likely that an expansion of the welfare state will simply lure more people into lives of sloth and dependency.

Some people on the right want to replace the welfare state with a guaranteed or basic income. This has some theoretical appeal, but it is based on the very shaky assumption that politicians could be convinced to completely repeal all existing redistribution programs.

Which is why the most prudent and effective step is to simply get the federal government out of the business of redistributing income and let state and local governments decide how best to deal with the issue.

This federalism-based approach has several advantages.

  1. Since redistributing income is not listed as an enumerated power, ending Washington’s role would be consistent with the Constitution.
  2. This federalism model already has been successfully tested with welfare reform in the 1990s and it also is the core feature of proposals to block grant Medicaid.
  3. A state-based model is far more likely to result in the degree of experimentation, diversity, and innovation needed to discover how best to actually promote self sufficiency.

By the way, this federalist system may begin with block grants from the federal government (i.e., transfers of cash to state and local governments), but the ultimate goal should be to phase out such subsidies so that state and local governments are responsible for choosing how to raise funds and how to allocate them.

And once welfare is truly a responsibility of state and local governments, we have good evidence that this will lead to better policy.

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In a perverse way, I admire leftists who openly express their desire for bigger government and less liberty.

That’s why I (sort of) applauded when Matthew Yglesias wrote in favor of confiscatory tax rates while admitting the government wouldn’t generate any revenue.

And I gave Katrina vanden Heuvel credit for openly admitting her desire to redefine “freedom” so that it means a claim on other people’s income and property.

Both are proposing horrible policy, of course, but at least they’re honest about their goals and motivations. Unlike politicians, they’re not trying to disguise their intentions behind poll-tested platitudes.

We can now add another person to our list of honest leftists. The new leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn, is a British version of Bernie Sanders, except he really is a socialist who believes in government ownership and control of business. And the chief economic adviser to Corbyn is Richard Murphy.

And, as reported by the U.K.-based Sun, Mr. Murphy openly says everyone’s income belongs to government.

Chartered accountant Richard Murphy, 57, is the brains behind the “Corbynomics” strategy of renationalisation, higher taxes and printing millions of pounds in “new” money. …his bizarre ideas have already sparked fears among Britain’s top economic experts… One of Murphy’s strategies was revealed in August 2014… The dad-of-two claimed taxpayers’ money was NOT their own – and was instead the state’s “rightful property”. Murphy said: “I would suggest that we don’t as such pay taxes. The funds that they represent are, I suggest, in fact the property of the state.”

To be fair, sometimes people mangle their words. To cite one hypothetical example, accidentally omitting a  word like “not” might totally change the meaning of a sentence and give a journalist an opportunity to make a speaker look foolish.

So maybe Mr. Murphy didn’t really mean to say that the government has first claim on everyone’s income.

But if you continue reading, it becomes apparent that he really does believe that government is daddy and the rest of us are children who may be lucky enough to get some allowance.

“…if we give the state the power to define what we can own, how we can own it and, to a very large degree, what we can do with it – and we do – then I would argue that we also give the state the right to say that some part of what we earn or own is actually its rightful property and that we have no choice but pay that tax owed as the quid pro quo of the benefit we enjoy from living in community. Murphy went on: “Well let me inform you that there is no such thing as ‘taxpayers’ money’: it is the government’s money to do what it will with in accordance with the mandate it has been given and for which it will have to account.

Wow, this truly gives us a window into the soul of statism.

Though let’s be fair to Murphy. He’s simply stating that untrammeled majoritarianism is a moral basis for public policy, even if it means 51 percent of the population ravages 49 percent of the population. And that’s an accurate description of how economic policy works in the United States ever since the Supreme Court decided to toss out the Constitution’s limits on the power of the federal government.

Moreover, Murphy’s view is basically reflected in the “tax expenditure” concept used in Washington and the “state aid” concept in the European Union.

None of this justifies Murphy’s poisonous ideology. Instead, I’m simply making the grim point that statists already have achieved some of their goals.

But maybe it will be easier to counter further attacks on economic liberty now that Murphy has openly said what his side wants.

P.S. There are two types of honest leftists. Richard Murphy, like Matt Yglesias and Katrina vanden Heuvel, are honest in that they openly state what they really believe, even when it exposes their radical agenda.

Some other folks on the left have a better type of honesty. They’re willing to admit when there is a contradiction between statist ideology and real-world results. Just look at what Justin Cronin and Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about gun control and what Nicholas Kristof wrote about government-created dependency.

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